Snorting has greeted Niall Ferguson’s new column, which begins like this:
President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.
But aside from derision, Ferguson’s comments deserve some analysis. There is a reason why Ferguson, when he looks upon a cartoon character from the 1920s, lets his mind free-associate in the direction of black people. As many cultural historians have pointed out, the classic American animated cartoons emerged from the same milieu that produced blackface performances (like the Amos and Andy show) and minstrel music. Many of the great early animated characters — Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Bosko — had more than a touch of blackface and the minstrel show to them.
Felix the cat is a feckless, happy-go-lucky trickster. Culturally, he’s the missing link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny: admirable in some ways but lacking in the “white” qualities of respectability and responsibility. It’s interesting that Ferguson managed to pick out such a potent, meaning-rich cultural symbol of blackness. It was probably subconscious on his part but still very revealing.